NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Apologies everyone for the lack of updates lately. *Spoiler Alert* We have made it back to Portland and our time has been consumed by family and friends, as well as job hunting and figuring out what to do with the bus.

Where we left off, we had been in San Francisco for several days enjoying some great friends and an amazing city. After we said our goodbyes we climbed back aboard our trusty Bird and continued our trek north. We stopped to visit some family outside Redding for a few days, and had a great time exploring some back roads in the mountains. The bus does surprisingly well on rough gravel roads. There is something to be said for the robust build quality of an old Blue Bird school bus. Lindsey and I talked it over and decided that we would have much more fun following the coast up to Oregon, rather than taking I5 straight through the middle. We didn’t want to trip to end, so extending it by an extra 2-3 days was a welcome idea.

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Leaving Redding we headed west on highway 299, winding our way up and down through the mountains. It was hot out but we were really enjoying the drive, these were some of the greatest driving roads I have been on for a while. The closer we got to the coast and the further we got into the forest the more it cooled down.  We marveled at the beautiful scenery going by, and even though I had to really hustle the bus along the curvy road we were really enjoying the drive. Little did I know what waited ahead would make me regret that statement later. We passed a few hitchhikers along the highway, but they always seemed to be waiting along the guardrails next to a steep drop off where there was no room to pull over, so we continued along without extra passengers.

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Pretty soon we were turned off 299 at Douglas City and headed down highway 3 south. The road got a little narrower but it wasn’t enough to cause alarm. We were really enjoying ourselves now, cruising through some beautiful forests and along some small rivers. It was so nice to be out of arid Southern California and see so much greenery and water flowing. Eventually we turned onto highway 36 and made for the coast. This is where things got interesting, as the road narrowed so much that most of it didn’t have a yellow center line. We snaked our way around the mountain for miles, trying not to look over the side at the steep drops. Crossing our fingers at every switchback, hoping there wasn’t another vehicle coming from the other direction, as we needed most of the road just to negotiate the turn. Fortunately we managed to squeeze by all the oncoming traffic and eventually made it out onto the foothills where the road opened up again. By the time we got to the bottom I was a sweaty mess. This was definitely one of the most harrowing roads we have been on so far.

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Meeting up with highway 101 again we headed to Fortuna, where we planned to spend the night. A few days earlier Lindsey had found the Eel River Brewing Company online, and learned that they allow overnight RV camping, which we eagerly took them up on. We found the brewery and parked in their large gravel back lot, which was perfect for the bus. It was so nice to relax with some cold fresh beer after such an intense day of driving.

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Spending a peaceful night in the bus we got up early and hit the road. We stopped at a state beach just north of Eureka and made some breakfast, then walked down to the water and enjoyed the cold sand on our bare feet. Driving along the coast through the chilly early morning fog made me nostalgic for the days I spent with my grandparents at the beach when I was growing up. The smell of the ocean rolling in the open window just added to the experience.

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We continued our drive north, stopping at a few overlooks to watch the mighty Pacific crash against the rocks. Pretty soon we found a scenic byway that led us through the Redwoods National Park, where we were awe struck by the size and beauty of the old trees. Parking the bus at the base of some of these trees we marveled at their immense size, making us feel so tiny and unimportant. I can see how the Redwoods hold such a sacred place in many peoples minds and hearts, and I can’t wait to go back and spend some more time camping and exploring around the park.

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As we drove north toward Crescent City a new reality hit us: it was only a few more miles until we crossed into Oregon, and a couple more days until we were back home in Portland. This brought feelings of elation at being back home after a year and a half, and also sadness, for the New Oregon Trail was coming to an end. It was hard to be too sad though, as it was a gorgeous August day to be driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, with the water so blue and the forests so green. It sure feels nice to be back on the West Coast.

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HOW WE TOOK THE SUMMER OFF

When we decided that we were going to buy a bus, we had a lot of questions. First off was the size. How do you get around in a giant bus? How do we title and insure it? We started reading about buses online and learned quite a bit, but we needed to go look at some in person. It had been years since either of us had set foot in a school bus, and we didn’t know what to expect. We found a dealer in Tampa who carried quite a few retired school buses and went to check them out. After spending a few hours in the lot we found what we thought was the ideal setup. It was a mid 90’s Blue Bird, with a standard truck hood and Navistar 7.3 diesel. This bus was known as a half size, about 28ft long, and it had a wheelchair lift in the back. We thought the large handicap door would prove useful for getting larger items in and out, and the length seemed just right. I even felt comfortable behind the wheel, as it was so similar to other large trucks I have driven. We negotiated the asking price down to $4200 and promised to return the next weekend with cash in hand.

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Unfortunately, we were too slow. The bus we had picked out was sold before we could come back with the money. We were sad, but the hunt continued. Our time was running out, the lease on our house was up at the end of May and we needed to be out. I scoured Craigslist and EBay every evening after work, bidding on a few buses only to be outbid at the last minute. Then one night after I should have been in bed I found our bus. It was listed on the Georgia craigslist, hidden deep in the lists without a proper title. I was dubious but I clicked on the link. I was greeted with the glorious sight of a classic Blue Bird; it’s quad headlights winking at me. I studied the grainy photos in the ad, and fired off an email to the seller. I crossed my fingers, and the next morning I found a reply email waiting. The seller was the football coach at the small private school in Damascus, GA, and while being an incredibly nice guy could hardly tell me anything about the bus. I arranged a meeting for the weekend, and Saturday morning Lindsey and I took off on the 6 hour drive north. We met with the coach and had a look around the bus. We were immediately surprised by the size; it looked smaller in the ad! We measured and found it was indeed a full size 40 foot bus, much more than we had anticipated using. But as we explored further we realized the white factory paint was in pretty good condition still, the interior paint was excellent, and it had the large sliding windows, that seal and latch so much better than regular school bus windows. I also discovered it had a really nice 4 cylinder Yanmar diesel factory mounted midship to run the AC system. We took it out on the little country road for a test drive, it was my first time driving a forward control vehicle like this, and it took a little leap of faith to pull out on the road. The bus was surprisingly easy to drive, and felt good going down the road.

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After pulling back in to the school we summoned up the courage and agreed to buy it. The school didn’t know much about it and didn’t really know what to ask, so we tossed a few offers back and forth and finally agreed on $2,000. That’s right, we only paid $2,000 for this giant bus, which was running and driving pretty well. Lindsey and I quickly unloaded some supplies we had brought, checked the oil in the engine and transmission and topped up as necessary, cleaned the mildew off the drivers seat and steering wheel, cleaned all the mirrors and windshield, and chased away some spiders and wasps that were hanging around. We set off on our adventure home, a 6+ hour drive back to Mount Dora. Along the way I got to figure out what all the buttons and knobs did, how to open the air powered door, and of course, how the air horn sounded. It was an uneventful drive back down south with Lindsey leading the way in our Jetta. I am so happy that we found our bus, it is perfect for us. Sometimes it would be nice to have a shorter vehicle but having all the space we do can’t be beat. It is an All American body, but it has factory white paint, and doesn’t have any school bus lights on it. That combined with the interesting seating layout and large sliding windows leads me to believe this was some sort of charter bus when it was new. It makes the perfect base for a bus conversion; we absolutely love all the windows and have no plans to remove any of them.

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At the time, I was working for a company that ran a couple of farms in the area (the reason we moved to FL) and my boss kindly agreed to let us park the bus on one of the properties. That is where we dropped it after bringing it down from Georgia, fortunately it was only a 5 minute drive from our house, so it was quick to get back and forth while working on it.  There it sat for the next 7 weeks while we worked on stripping the old interior and building it back up. I was fortunate enough to have an understanding boss who let us do the conversion on the property, which really solved a lot of problems for us as our house had a little driveway on a tiny residential street.

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One of the main questions we are asked when people hear our story is ”how do you afford it?” and when we explain that we bought the bus for so little, and didn’t spend much more on the conversion then they begin to understand. We built our interior out of mostly second hand lumber and supplies I got from work for free so that really helped cut down on the expenses. We dismantled an old horse corral which provided us with a ton of lumber, and we also collected a few pallets which we broke down into individual pieces. There was a store down the road from our house that sold overstocked building supplies, so we got our slightly beat up laminate flooring and old stainless sink from them at blowout prices. We also had a free place to park it while we worked on the project, which is a huge help.

Once we decided that we wanted to move back to Oregon we knew that we wanted to spend the summer traveling the country. We were already good about saving money, and we were (and still are) living debt free so there wasn’t anything to eat into our savings. We increased our savings in preparation for the trip, and started selling off anything we didn’t need. Furniture and household things were sold until the house was empty. Our cars and my dirt bikes got sold off to add to the savings pot. Now our only vehicle is this giant antique bus and our little dual sport. We sat down together and worked out a budget, which is mostly for fuel. We included a large allowance for brewery and restaurant visits, as that is one of the things that make us happy in life. What is the point of living if you aren’t happy?  Our biggest expense is obviously fuel, our bus will get anywhere from 7 – 10 MPG depending on speed, terrain, and wind so it isn’t the most economical vehicle, but it isn’t bad for a house on wheels. While we were working out our budget I estimated that we would be driving about 10,000 miles on this trip, so we planned accordingly.

Finding free camping and parking has been another huge asset to this trip. Beyond the standard free overnight Wal-Mart parking, we have been using a couple websites to find free places to stay with great success. The first is www.boondockerswelcome.com, which is a great website that links fellow RV travelers together who offer free parking on their properties, and the other is www.harvesthosts.com, where agricultural businesses offer free parking at their farm, winery, produce store, etc. These sites have helped us stay on budget, and have introduced us to some really amazing people and places. If you are traveling by any sort of RV or bus I highly recommend checking these sites out.

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I also get asked frequently about needing a special license to drive the bus, the short answer is no. If it was still a commercial vehicle I would be required by law to have a class B license but we were able to change the title in Florida to a motor home title, so anyone with a standard drivers license can operate it. It does take a lot of getting used to, remembering how much room is between the axles and how far the back hangs out. We are also able to insure it as a motor home, although it can be a struggle to find a cooperative insurance agency.

Bottom line is, if you have a crazy idea to do something like move into an old bus, it isn’t hard. There are a few difficulties to overcome but nothing worth getting worked up about. We have seen families online with 3-4 kids who still manage to live comfortably in a bus the same size as ours. If you have the motivation, saving money is pretty simple. Cutting back on expenses in order to save for a trip is easy to get the hang of. We plan on keeping our bus for a long time to come. We have big plans to remodel the interior into a more permanent living space, including a large solar array, real plumbing, and a wood burning stove. Home is where we park it!